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Monday, January 4, 2010

Is blue the new black? Why some people think Avatar is racist


****Spoilers Alert****
I am back after the holidays. Christmas day was bracketed by breaking news on health care on Christmas Eve and the underpants bomber on Boxing Day, but for the last few days I have been enjoying some time with the family.

One of the best things we did was see Avatar. Stupendous. Exhilarating. Extraordinary. I never thought 3D could work. The technology is stunning. I admit I am something of a science fiction buff, but I think most people are going to be blown away by this film. Predictably, columnists who live to attack whatever is successful and put the counter-intuitive point of view are having a field day.

But the criticism that has intrigued me is the charge that the film is racist.

I have tried in writing this not to blow the plot, but inevitably there are some spoilers. For those who don't know already, the story centres on a conflict between greedy corporate human invaders and the planet's inhabitants, 10-foot tall, blue-skinned people with rather feline features and tails. One of many such blogs argues that "Avatar is a fantasy about ceasing to be white, giving up the old human meatsack to join the blue people, but never losing white privilege."

With a certain accuracy critics have pointed out that all the "human" characters are played by white actors and all the blue, cat-like Na'vi are played by non-whites. With a degree of American insularity they also say that because they use bows and arrows and wear feathers they are "really" native Americans. This ignores tribal indigenous people from New Guinea to Brazil, so deliberately misses a wider point.

The debate in the US is conditioned by the long-running argument among sci-fi writers and fans about the "magical negro". It is a term coined by black critics who noted white authors often featured non-white characters possessed of a certain sort of natural wisdom, mystic powers, who play sidekick to the white hero and often sacrifice themselves for the central character. They are a variant on the much-older ideal of the "noble savage".

If I have understood correctly, the critics say this is demeaning because the character, who need not actually be black, but native American or some other ethnic group, acts only to help the whites central to the story, and isn't part of a racial group, doesn't have a back story, or a fully developed character but is essentially a plot device. I'd note that American fiction has quite often featured a "magic janitor" and I think the key is what the author perceives on a very basic level as otherness as much as race.

The term surfaced in the political arena during the last presidential elections when in the LA times David Ehrenstein suggested Barack Obama was a magical negro: "Like a comic-book superhero, Obama is there to help, out of the sheer goodness of a heart we need not know or understand. For as with all Magic Negroes, the less real he seems, the more desirable he becomes."

It is a thoughtful article, disturbing for its unspoken assumption that Obama is a self-constructed stereotype, not a real person and that "authentic" black people behave in a certain way.

In any case the term was gleefully taken up by Obama's opponents and set to the tune of Puff the Magic Dragon. You might guess their purpose was not to advance post-structuralist criticism but to earn the licence to repeat the naughty word "negro" and make fun of the candidate.

Thank the powers, of whatever race, that no-one has suggested that any character in Avatar is "really" the president. Although I thought I spotted Donald Rumsfeld on the big screen. The criticism of Avatar is an extension of the "magical Negro" idea. Indeed at one level it is an inversion of it: "the magical Caucasian" who turns out to be an even nobler savage than the common and garden, bred-to-it variety. Tarzan, Lord of Greystokes, Lord of the Jungle has to be top of the tree in this game. The central complaint is that in Avatar it takes a white hero to lead the natives.

This seems to miss two points. The first is simply about the way narrative works. The critics' version of the film would be very dull. Bad people land on planet. Good people defeat them - virtuous but not much of a story arc. An emotional journey, learning and changing are better narrative. Raising age-old questions about whether it is better to be true to your values and your friends rather than your country (species) is more thought-provoking than most Hollywood blockbusters manage.

My second objection is more profound. I strongly believe the racial divide has been the driving force in American history, and continues to play a huge, and often under-discussed role in its politics. I am not one to underestimate its power.

But that doesn't mean everything is about that debate. One of the reasons I like sci-fi, apart from the escapism, is the way it explores political ideas, old and new. The film is actually a rather old-fashioned, liberal, morality tale. As in many futures imagined by authors over the last several decades the company has replaced the state as the agent of colonialism and greedy conquest. Then there is the mainstay of Hollywood morality, the underdog mounting a ferocious fight-back. Added to the mix is a healthy dose of new age Gaia-ism (Pandoraism?). The idea of weaker opponents fighting back against a military force with an apparently overwhelming technological superiority, aided by the enemy within, surely echoes not only Vietnam but conflicts much closer to us in time and space. Perhaps it is easier for American critics to think it is about race.

Oddly enough I read a rather subtler take on the idea of technology versus nature just a few days after seeing the film. My wife bought me Peter F Hamilton's Fallen Dragon for Christmas. It is much more compact and better written than his past sprawling space operas but equally packed with ideas. One chapter sees the company's military defeated in a way very familiar to viewers of Avatar. The twist is, the planetary defenders of Santa Chico are not aboriginal but come from elsewhere, post-humans genetically mutated into a state of harmony with the local flora and fauna, which are themselves itself genetically uplifted into a state of scientifically ennobled post savagery. The natives are originally from California. I always thought the West Coast was magic.